College Football: ECU’s McNeil controlling weight
By Aaron Beard
GREENVILLE ó Ruffin McNeill felt the pain in his right hip with every step, a constant companion that steadily cut into the East Carolina coachís once-dedicated workout regimen.
Worse, it contributed to significant weight gain that not only increased the burden on the failing joint to make walking even tougher, but had also become a serious health concern.
One that prompted McNeill, 52, to take back control of his life.
In a profession where coaches often overlook their own health while pushing players to peak condition, McNeill has lost 90 pounds after weight-loss surgery in January and will have hip replacement surgery later this month.
ěI want to do whatever I can to be the best husband, father and coach I can be ó in that order,î he said. ěI also talk to our young men about doing the little extra things … about being disciplined and doing the best you can on whatever you dive into.
ěI want to make sure I donít ask them to do something Iím not doing.î
The former Pirates defensive back affectionately known as ěCoach Ruffî weighed 388 pounds ó exactly double his playing weight as a senior in 1979 ó before having gastric bypass surgery. The procedure reduced his stomach capacity to about a golf ball-sized amount of food or liquid.
Now heís 298 pounds, cutting a slimmer outline through clothes growing baggier by the day.
ěJust say Iím looking good,î he said with a smile.
He looks a little younger, too.
ěItís fun to see him looking like the old Ruff like I married,î said Erlene McNeill, his wife of nearly 24 years. ěExcept maybe for a little gray hair.î
That weight loss has cleared the way for the next step in his self-improvement project. McNeill walks with a pronounced limp and relies on a golf cart to quickly navigate the schoolís practice fields. But after Saturdayís spring game, McNeill can focus more on preparing for the April 29 hip surgery that will help provide a fresh start ó more energy, better mobility, downsized frame ó for training camp in August.
ěEverybody has something thatís not right that they probably need to fix,î said Lincoln Riley, an assistant with McNeill at Texas Tech before becoming his offensive coordinator at ECU. ěA lot of people arenít able to put that pride away, especially somebody thatís that public of a figure where everybodyís going to know and itís going to be front-page news.
ěMost people arenít willing to change that.î
The changes follow a season in which Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack and Urban Meyer resigned a second time at Florida amid health concerns, highlighting hazards in a profession with high stress and long hours.
As team physician Joe Armen put it, ěHe knew his back was against the wall.î
ěObviously the high level of stress and busy lifestyle associated with coaching college football can have negative health consequences,î said Armen, part of the medical team working with McNeill. ěI think thatís especially true if the job itself becomes life-consuming. … Many seem to be driven to outwork their peers regardless of the wear and tear it can have on their bodies.î
McNeill held that off by working out five times a week at Texas Tech as an assistant under Mike Leach, typically an hour or so lifting weights and another 90 minutes of aerobic work. But arthritic pain soon developed in a hip that never suffered a serious injury in college, providing steady interference to his routine.
While he tried to push through it, his weight inched higher amid the fast food, airport dinners and big meals prepared by recruitsí families during home visits. By the time he took over in Greenville in January 2010, his routine was often limited to upper-body work as he scrambled to hire a staff and jump into recruiting.
But he eventually started exercising in a pool to ease the burden on his hip. He started a liquid diet after the season to prepare for the weight-loss surgery, then followed the procedure with another four weeks of liquids before slowly advancing to proteins like chicken or fish.
Itís quite a change from the days of eating on the run or treating his coaching staff ó and himself ó to catered meals, biscuits or doughnuts around the office.
ěI think if you did a poll for former athletes who play in college, theyíll probably say, ëYeah, I eat the same way as when I was at the training table,íî Erlene McNeill said. ěWhen youíre in college, youíre encouraged to beef up and itís kind of hard to change that over the years.î
Now he snacks on yogurt or a few peanuts. He drinks juices and water while avoiding caffeine and soda. He works out in the pool around 5 a.m. several times a week, swimming and doing exercises to build strength that will aid his recovery from the hip surgery.
McNeill said he has more energy and a clearer mind. His players have noticed.
ěHe did worry us at some points with how much weight heís had,î defensive lineman Matt Milner said. ěBut he looks like itís coming around and he looks so much better than he was. He looks like a total new guy.
ěEverything kind of ties in. Heís in control of this team and heís in control of his health, and that sets a great example for everybody.î
McNeill is motivated in his recovery by the thought that ěa lot of people are depending on me,î from the players aiming for a sixth straight bowl trip to the two daughters hoping heíll be in the best shape possible to one day walk them down the aisle. And heís so excited that he even issued a playful challenge to Riley.
ěHe told me he wants to look like me here pretty quick,î said Riley, who at 27 is a slender 190 pounds. ěHe said heís going to get it off as fast as he can and then weíre going to go race, so Iím looking forward to that race.î
The Associated Press